This is the first in a series of posts planned detailing the journey of our new startup, STEMtrunk – from the original idea through our eventual launch and beyond. If you are interested in following along, please make sure to like STEMtrunk on Facebook and we will announce subsequent posts there.
I stole the idea for STEMtrunk.
Okay… maybe “stole” is too strong a word, but it was definitely not MY idea in the first place. In fact, the spark of an idea that has become STEMtrunk originated in the mind of a man I am now happy to call one of our advisers, Jon Corippo – the Chief Innovation Office at CUE.org (Computer Using Educators).
At the time, I was working on another startup idea in the education space that we called Tap2Teach. With my background in apps and app marketing, and my desire to get into the education space, Tap2Teach was this grand plan to create a system that would allow teachers to get copies of paid apps for free, to see if they wanted to use them in the classroom. Without a background in formal education, I had taken to reading as much as I could online, and was always looking for organizations that I could partner with that would be able to help connect me with teachers, the eventual users of Tap2Teach.
I ran the idea past Joe Wood, the Director of Instructional Technology at my sons school, Natomas Charter School, and he first recommended that I look up CUE. With their focus on technology in the classroom – CUE seemed like a great potential partner. It was one program in particular though – the “STEAMpunk Mobile Lab” – that really peaked my interest and started an idea percolating in my brain.
The STEAMpunk Mobile Lab is a program created by Jon and CUE to help get high quality STEM (or STEAM – we use both interchangeably) gear into the hands of teachers. A number of manufactures had donated equipment to CUE, and Jon put them together into classroom kits which he would loan out for free to school across California. At the same time he gathered a number of teachers and created some lesson plans that would help show teachers how to integrate them into the classroom environment.
I had not given up on the idea of Tap2Teach however, and told Joe that I would love to meet the CUE team if he could facilitate an introduction. As fate would have it, a few weeks after that conversion there happened to be a CUE Rockstar Camp being held right down the street from me at my sons school. Joe, Jon, and a number of others from CUE would be in attendance, as well as a number of teachers who I could bounce ideas off of.
I jumped at the opportunity to attend (Okay – I admit it – Joe let me sneak in without paying since I was only going to meet a few people and not for the whole event), and listened to Jon give the keynote talk. Afterwards, I approached him and spent some time chatting with him about Tap2Teach, but also about his STEAMpunk program.
“It’s a great program – but it’s almost impossible to expand. I have a list of teachers a mile long interested in the kits – but we have only had so much equipment donated to us.” Jon told me.
Nothing perks up an entrepreneurs ears more than hearing “there is way more demand than supply“. What if the STEAMpunk Mobile Lab could be made into a company, one that generated enough profit that it COULD purchase more equipment and expand, allowing more teachers to be able to get access to these high quality educational tools? I couldn’t shake the idea that there was something bigger here – if we could just nail down how to manage it. The seed of an idea had been planted.
Sometimes – Big Ideas Need to Be Massaged A Bit
The immediate idea was a pretty simple monetization of the STEAMpunk idea. Schools line up to get trials of the equipment for free… would they be willing to pay a small fee for it? We talked with a few dozen teachers and administrators that seemed to indicate that they would – so we dug deeper into the business model to see if the finances would make sense.
In order to make it sustainable as a company, and keep it reasonably priced for a school, we had to make sure we did not have a ton of products sitting on our shelves. The idea for the service to be a subscription was brought to the table, and the plan was to tie the kits to specific Common Core and NGSS curriculum standards that a teacher could follow throughout the year based on the grade level they were teaching.
Red flags started appearing however when we dug deeper into the idea. My experience at my day job (I own a marketing agency called Appency) was always in marketing directly to consumers. Marketing to schools was a completely different ball game, one that still did most of its transactions via sales people that visited schools in person hocking their wares. My experience was more digital advertising, social media and public relations based. A person powered sales team was expensive, and slow to get off the ground.
To top it all off – the problems we were trying to solve for our potential customers, was a huge potential problem for us as well. The initial cost to buy enough equipment to supply classrooms, even if we could purchase it at a discount, was huge. Some of these products cost $200-$300 each, and a classroom sized kit could easily contain ten copies of an item. Facing a potentially slow start and large overhead, we knew the idea needed to change.
We knew that many of the STEM products that were enjoying successes in the school environment like Sphero and Osmo, were also doing well in the home environment. Parents with fixed budgets however were facing a dilemma – hardware is expensive, and children can be unpredictable. In my own house, I had seen hundreds of dollars of purchases generate excitement in my kids, only to be gathering dust in the closet a couple of months later. STEMtrunk we realized, could be the answer. For the same cost of one or two STEM toys, we could give families access to dozens – and parents would never have to worry about their child losing interest. As they got older, their choices could change and keep up with their educational growth.
We had hit upon a path that we felt we could be successful with. The more we spoke with parents, the more we realized how many shared the same concerns and problems with the current educational product market. Our own skills as marketers were much better suited for bringing a new company directly to customers instead of schools, and the overhead of shipping one product to one family was much more manageable than trying to accumulate enough to fill a classroom.
Now all we needed to do was to make it happen….. (to be continued).